ScoreKeeper had a chance to speak with the amazing Lalo Schifrin.
Schifrin's impressive (and eclectic) list of credits includes George Lucas' THX-1138, multiple DIRTY HARRY films, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (remember the eeries "Laaaa, La" theme?), ENTER THE DRAGON (Bruce Lee), THE CAT FROM OUTER SPACE (probably not high in Schifrin's stack of calling cards, but when I was a kid I thought Jake the talking space cat's glowing collar was unbearably cool...actually, it still is...so I had to mention it), the RUSH HOUR films, and, of course, the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE theme. Schifrin recently scored ABOMINABLE -- his son Ryan's first directorial effort.
Here's ScoreKeeper and Lalo. And, yes, ScoreKeeper asked Lalo if he was ever approached to score X-Men: The Last Stand -- an assignment many AICNers believed inevitable given Schifrin's past association director Brett Ratner. Read on for the answer, and....ENJOY!
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here with an uber-cool interview with the legendary composer Lalo Schifrin.
He just recently scored his son Ryan’s first film, ABOMINABLE. I wasn’t planning on writing up a full review of the score, but I do want to say that I think it’s one of the best horror scores that I’ve heard in a long while. Who should be surprised? Lalo is a true genius and it was one of the highlights of my career to speak with him.
ScoreKeeper: You just recently wrapped up your score for ABOMINABLE, which was the feature-film directorial debut of your son Ryan. This is the first time, that I can recall, that a father has scored his own son’s movie. Talk to me about working with your son Ryan, especially in regards to your collaborative relationship?
Lalo Schifrin: Well it was no different than working with any other director. I’ve done about one hundred movies, many television series, and many movies-of-the-week. I’ve worked with great directors in the past. It was no different. While we were working, the father-son relationship didn’t exist because I was working for the movie like I always do. It was what was coming from the screen that inspired me. Of course I knew that it was my son, but while I was working that had nothing to do with it.
SK: Were you relying more on him or was he relying more on you?
LS: Well, first of all when I saw the film put together my respect for Ryan as a director - you see he studied at the USC film school and did some short subjects which I have seen - but this one impressed me a lot and I developed a lot of respect for him as a director.
Our relationship was very professional. He had some ideas in mind. Of course he drafted me because he knew my track record. He proposed to me to do the scoring and was delighted that I would do it. Not only because he was my son, but he also has a lot of admiration for me. He collects all my soundtracks and is very familiar with my work.
SK: When Ryan came to you and asked you to score his film was it an automatic “yes”?
LS: First I had to see the film. When I saw the film I said ‘of course.’ The film was very professionally done and I thought that I could make a contribution.
SK: I hate to use the old clichÃ© but your score for ABOMINABLE has such a wonderful “old school” style approach to it. So many new horror scores lean more towards atmospheric noise. It’s wonderful to hear melody, harmony, and rhythm in a horror score.
LS: Well let me tell you, If Ryan had asked me to write an electronic score based on noises like what is being done today, I would not have accepted it. As a matter of fact, he also wanted a symphony orchestra and we were able to get it and do it that way.
SK: This is a low-budget film but would you consider this a low- budget score? Since Ryan directed it, did he allocate in the budget a larger proportion than usual toward music? It certainly doesn’t sound like your typical low-budget horror film score.
LS: I was lucky. That part I didn’t know how to solve. I was lucky because I happened to be doing a concert tour in Europe with the National Czech Symphony Orchestra. I had worked with them in the past. Their studios and their salaries in comparison with other salaries in other parts of the world are not too expensive. So in that sense the score didn’t cost too much.
SK: How large was the orchestra you used on that score?
LS: Ninety pieces.
SK: One of the things that I’ve always loved about your music is you do what is necessary and no more. Whether it be the spotting of the film, the size of the ensemble, or the scoring in general, it’s always where it should be and not a note more. In contrast, it seems to me that so many modern day composers are rushing out there to compose bigger, louder, and faster scores. When you watch other films do you get that feeling as well? Do you think that films today are overscored?
LS: First of all let me thank you for your compliment. I can not answer your question because I am not a critic. Maybe that is your function but not mine. I can not criticize my colleagues. I think that would be unethical. It’s not because of politics or because I am afraid of the consequences. It’s because I think that I am living in our time and I am part of our time and I have to be objective…The evolution of film music since the beginning with silent films until our days, there have been so many changes.
And it all depends on the style of the films, the pace of the directors…For example, Alfred Hitchcock always used Bernard Herrmann…they had a sympathy. Just like Henry Mancini and Blake Edwards. I developed with Stuart Rosenberg (COOL HAND LUKE, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR) and Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY) the same kind of simpatico – parallel ideas. Today’s directors have their own pace, their own objectives and their own roles.
SK: I thought the overall mix in ABOMINABLE was great! Usually horror scores are buried under so much sound effects that they don’t have the opportunity to affect their audiences. Were you there at the final mix and did you have control over that? I’d also imagine the son of a famous film composer knows better.
LS: No I didn’t have the time…Oh, wait a second…There was a first mix, a rough mix that I did in Prague but then the final mix was done here (Los Angeles) and I couldn’t go.
SK: Were you satisfied with the mix in the end?
LS: Of course! But I also trusted Ryan who likes the music loud. He agrees with me. Why have such a big orchestra? I worked very hard on this film. Why then lose this effort under the sound effects? Ryan was looking for music to make a contribution and enhance his ideas and concepts about the film.
SK: How long did it take you to compose the score?
LS: The same amount of time it takes me on any film….around five to six weeks.
SK: You haven’t scored many horror films throughout your career, THE MANITOU, DAY OF THE ANIMALS, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, and AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION being the core of your horror filmography. After your success with ABOMINABLE, would you welcome a healthy dose of future horror scoring? I think film music fans sure would.
LS: I would welcome good movies to score. Movies that inspire me. Because of the success of BULLITT, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, MANNIX, DIRTY HARRY and the sequels of DIRTY HARRY, I’ve been typecast as an action composer. Bernard Herrmann once said to me something very important and I believe it. ‘There is no such thing as a film composer. There are only composers.’ So a composer should be able to handle comedy, tragedy, romance…I think it was a little bit of lady luck that put me in the position to get more and more action films.
But I did THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, and ROLLERCOASTER which is not really a horror film but there is terror in it and I used a totally different approach. I used mostly amusement park music – calliopes, children’s rides, merry-go-rounds, I created that music to play against the scene, except for a few moments that were absolutely terrifying. I don’t like to play by the book. I am like the bullfighter who places himself very close to the horns of the bull. I like to take chances.
SK: I can definitely hear that. I think that is one of the reasons I am so attracted to your work. It’s so unique and refreshing. I want to talk about typecasting a little bit. You’ve had such a long career. Did you ever find yourself struggling with being typecast? Were you constantly trying to convince producers that a good composer can compose anything? It seems true to this day that composers are very easily typecast after succeeding in a particular genre.
LS: Well, let me put it this way…I’m not complaining. For instance, the success of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE made it possible for many open doors in other areas. I’m getting a lot of commissions from symphony orchestras…
As a matter of fact, the Chicago Symphony about a year and a half ago premiered a work of mine called “Fantasy for Screenplay and Orchestra,” which is a virtual movie. It has no story. The audience can make up the story in their mind. I wrote it in movements, the first movement is called “Main Title,” the second movement is called “Film Noir,” the third movement is called “The Silent Comedians,” then comes the “Love Theme,” and finally “The Final Conflict.” It’s an abstract piece of music but at the same time there is no story. So the success that I have from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, DIRTY HARRY or BULLITT, they helped me to do my own thing.
SK: Is there going to be a CD release for the “Fantasy for Screenplay and Orchestra”?
LS: I’m going to try. I think it’s going to be part of a CD. I’m going to play it at the world premiere of this piece that I wrote for the Sydney Symphony and I think they’re going to record the whole concert in which case the Fantasy will be included. But I don’t know yet.
SK: Between scoring films, composing concert pieces, conducting or performing, what’s the one thing that you like to do the most?
LS: Oh, I’m doing it. I’m doing everything I like…I am very happy. Maybe this is the secret of my vitality. I feel rejuvenated all the time. When I think about how old I am and how much I’ve done, how much I want to do, and how much I need to do…I’m not going to retire.
SK: Where you ever approached to score any of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films?
LS: No I was not.
SK: Did that ever bother you at all?
LS: No. I’ve done too many MISSION: IMPOSSIBLES.
SK: If somebody had asked you is that a project you think you would’ve done?
LS: Well, If I had been available…That was one thing that happened. I was not available when they did the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. I was on a conducting tour.
SK: There are a handful of composers who are credited with a single musical idea that becomes ingrained in the musical lexicon of our culture, such as John Williams’ theme from JAWS, or Bernard Herrmann’s shower scene from PSYCHO. The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE theme has reached that zenith where its popularity seems to transcend the film, or in this case a television show, for which it was written. What does it mean for you to have something that you wrote so long ago become such a facet of our popular culture?
LS: Well in that particular case it gives me great satisfaction because new generations of film-goers and the public in general like this music and it makes me feel in touch with a young generation. It’s like I am reaching across time and again, it rejuvenates me. I’m not a museum piece.
SK: When Brett Ratner was signed to direct X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, the first thing that came to my mind was the possibility of hearing a Lalo Schifrin comic book/super hero score. I was disappointed when I found out you were not going to score the film. I’m curious, were you ever approached to do X-MEN 3?
LS: No. But it didn’t matter because I was busy doing other things. But I’m glad the movie was successful. When a movie is successful it’s good for the whole industry.
SK: You’ve been known throughout your career to utilize jazz idioms and textures into your film music. When I look out there today jazz seems to have been relegated to romantic-comedies or lighter-fare films. Is jazz gone from mainstream film music and if so, is it possible we can ever really get it back?
LS: Your questions are very good. This one is difficult to answer. You know why? I’ll tell you why. I have to deal with the film I get. Jazz doesn’t work in all films. It did work in BULLITT and in DIRTY HARRY, although I didn’t do jazz. It was more of a fusion of jazz and acid-rock. Mainly because I felt that that was part of the period and part of the villain, Scorpio. It worked. I used a propulsive rhythm section and on top of that I scored it like any other movie. If there is a movie that requires jazz I’ll put in a walking-bass line and a drummer and I still score it the same way.
SK: So they’re not making movies anymore that require jazz scores?
LS: Well, I haven’t seen any yet. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to be made. Sometimes things come back periodically whether they evolve or change or who knows.
SK: Being a fan of film music and a film composer myself this may seem paradoxical but I really love it when a film works with very little music or when a particular scene works without any music at all. Although I love the music you write I’m almost more impressed by your cleverness of when not to write. For example, in BULLITT there is music leading right up to the famous car chase sequence but when the high speed pursuit begins there is no music at all throughout that entire sequence. What do you look for or what is your overall philosophy when you sit down to spot a film?
LS: I have no philosophy. I just look at the film and my instincts tell me. I hear the score already in my mind. I wish there was an electronic means to transport or communicate to the paper what I really hear in my mind.
Also, do not forget, there was a style of music (in the 50’s) called musique concrÃ¨te -- which was based on noise. A door opening and closing can by musical means create inventions, fugues, many different things. So I told the director of BULLILTT who wanted music under the car chase, ‘No, you don’t need it’. You have to orchestrate that scene with sound effects because sound is also part of the soundtrack. Sound is music. Noises are music too.
SK: I couldn’t agree with you more. I would like to see more filmmakers acknowledging that. Are there any other promotional events you’d like to talk about? I hear you’re about to go on tour in a few days.
LS: Well, the first concert is in Linz, Austria with the Bruckner Orchestra Linz…They are going to perform my own music from classical to jazz to films. Then I’m going to go to other cities. The last concert I’m going to give in Cologne. On the eve of the finals of the World Cup, in front of the cathedral in Cologne, I’m not going to conduct a symphony orchestra but a jazz band. So maybe I have the problem of being too versatile?
SK: (laughs) It’s a good problem to have.
LS: (laughs) Yes.
SK: Well Lalo, I want to thank you for your time. It’s been my sincerest pleasure interviewing you this evening. Keep writing! The work you do is fantastic. You’ve got a lot of fans out there including me. Best wishes on a successful tour.
LS: Well thank you very much for this interview. I really enjoyed it because your questions were very intelligent.
SK: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
LS: Best of luck to you.